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[BASRAH] Scientists in Iraq, one of the first regions of the world to have cultivated date palms more than 6,000 years ago, have succeeded in developing a cloning system for local varieties of the plant.

The researchers hope that their efforts will enable the country to rebuild and develop its date industry sufficiently provide a sorely-needed source of foreign currency.

The system, based on tissue culture technology, has been developed at the Date Palm Research Center (DPRC) at Basrah University. It will help to replace about 30 million palms destroyed over the past two decades either by military action or as a result of trade sanctions.

Abbas Gasem, director of DPRC, points out that despite of the great potential of cloning systems for plants, there are considerable difficulties in propagating woody species such as date palms. Many of the world's 3000-plus date palm varieties demand a highly specific micropropagation protocol.

Furthermore there are strong regional differences between varieties. For example, some varieties need more sugar in the medium, while others require more vitamins, nitrogen or calcium. Basic research to tackle these differences systematically is scarce.

Gasem says that Iraqi scientists have now developed an in vitro cloning system for Iraqi date palm varieties by culturing tissue growth "buds" in an artificial medium until seedlings appeared. These were then multiplied again. The developed seedlings could be used as a source for producing date palms.

This cloning system has many advantages over traditional methods using seeds and offshoots. It enables large-scale production of genetically uniform plants with no seasonal limitation, as they can be reproduced under controlled conditions in the laboratory throughout the year.

The technology will make it possible to produce up to 60,000 exact genetic copies from one parent that can reach fruiting maturity in four years, compared to the eight to 10 years it takes using traditional methods.

Gasem points out that Iraq was probably the world's first exporter of dates, and was once home to 40 million trees of about 624 varieties. That number dwindled to 10 million following a series of blows: the Iraqi-Iranian war in the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, the more than 12 years of crippling sanctions that ensued, and the 2003 US-led invasion.

Gasem believes that the new cloning system will help replace the destroyed date palm trees in around a decade.

The developed cloning system will have a major impact on the date industry and its derivative products, such as syrups, jams and beverages made from the fruit; the trunks and leaves, used by builders and artisans; and the seeds, used as animal feed.

The cloning system could also be used to maintain and conserve Iraqi varieties of date palms, which are particularly diverse in the northern parts of the country.